Several strong earthquakes hit northwestern Japan; four dead, more than 300 injured

Saturday, October 23rd 2004, 11:25 am
By: News On 6

TOKYO (AP) _ Several powerful earthquakes rattled northwestern Japan over a two-hour span on Saturday, toppling homes, causing blackouts, cutting water and gas and derailing a bullet train. Media reported four people dead and more than 300 injured.

Several people also were reported missing.

The quakes _ the first of which measured magnitude 6.8 and struck at 5:56 p.m. _ were centered near the city of Ojiya about 12 miles beneath the earth's surface, the Meteorological Agency said. Ojiya is in Niigata prefecture (state), 160 miles northwest of Tokyo.

At least a half dozen more tremors, the strongest of which hit intermittently over two hours, included quakes of magnitude 6.2 and 5.9. Aftershocks followed, some just as forceful, the agency said.

``Strong aftershocks are continuing,'' agency official Masahiro Yamamoto said.

Media reports said the shaking in some parts of Niigata was so severe that people had difficulty standing. Buildings in Tokyo swayed several times for up to a minute.

Teams had been dispatched to assess the damage and offer assistance to residents but darkness and buckled roads were hampering their efforts, officials said. Eleven military helicopters fanned out to check the damage and help with rescue operations, a Defense Agency spokesman said.

Two people in Ojiya died at a hospital after being hit by falling rocks and other objects, NHK and Kyodo News reported. A 34-year-old man was struck by a falling wall as he fled his home in Tokamachi and later died, media said.

Later Saturday, NHK reported a fourth death.

Two others were stuck in a house that had been buried in a landslide in Ojiya, and four were missing in Nagaoka city after two homes collapsed, NHK said.

Objects falling from shelves injured nearly 50 people in Tokamachi and Ojiya cities, media reports. At least 250 others were reported injured _ some seriously _ in nearby towns and cities, including Nagaoka and Niigata, the reports said.

Sewage and water mains burst, gas and telephone services were down and about 250,000 homes lost power, officials told Japanese media.

Several homes were on fire after the tremors, which started around dinner time, Nagaoka city disaster official Toshimoto Onda told NHK.

Near Ojiya, trees and soil on a hillside sheared away, burying at least five cars and injuring several people, NHK said. Building windows shattered, walls cracked and books and files fell off shelves, Ojiya city official Ei Yoshizawa said.

The jolt triggered an automatic safety device that temporarily halted train services, according to media reports. Railway officials said a bullet train carrying about 150 passengers derailed and some of the cars tipped to the side near Nagaoka city, in Niigata prefecture, but nobody appeared to be hurt. Another train headed to Niigata from Tokyo jumped its tracks but no injuries were reported, NHK said.

The Meteorological Agency said there was no threat of tsunami, or potentially dangerous waves triggered by seismic activity.

The temblor came just days after Japan's deadliest typhoon in more than a decade left 79 dead and more than a dozen others missing.

Typhoon Tokage ripped through Japan this week with high waves and rapid mudslides, demolishing homes and flooding dozens of communities in western Japan before losing power and disappearing over the Pacific Ocean.

Authorities said there were concerns that the shaking could cause topsoil loosened by the storm's torrential rains to slide down hillsides.

Japan, which rests atop several tectonic plates, is among the world's most earthquake-prone countries.

A magnitude 6 quake can cause severe damage to homes and other buildings if centered in a heavily populated area.